Nokia to buy and open source Symbian

Nokia have announced their intentions to buy Symbian and open source it. It’s being seen widely as a response to Google’s Android, also an open source mobile operating system. I think it’s easy to confuse “open source operating system” for something that will provide all the benefits of the Linux development model. As always, “open source” covers a wide range of development activities and licenses.

The license chosen for Symbian (the Eclipse Public License) is not the Linux kernel license (the GNU Public License v2.0). I suspect the EPL was chosen precisely for its terms so that handset manufacturers like Nokia are able to have their own proprietary extensions for which they do not have to give away the source. This is similar to Google’s license for Android, the Apache license.

Both Google and Nokia are applications companies trying to build a mobile services platform, and they have remarkably similar assets. Google has a cloud computing strength that Nokia doesn’t. They both have map information (Google drives the streets, Nokia bought NAVTEQ) and assisted GPS application ability. Nokia has hired some absolute geniuses from the ubiquitous computing world to bring network services into people’s lives through the mobile phone, whereas Google’s social acquisition, Dodgeball, was a catastrophe. Now they both have a handset platform. The difference is that Google’s is built on modern technology and they had a chance to start with a clean slate. Symbian feels very 1990s in comparison.

The real question is what do they both hope to gain by having and open sourcing a handset operating system and its core applications? First, it’s defensive (nobody wants someone else to “own the handset” and thus have a competitive advantage). But secondly, it’s aggressive. They want handset manufacturers to be able to slap Android/Symbian onto the handsets, no royalties payable, you’re welcome, and then ship those handsets to the carriers …. Android’s default free web browser, of course, will point to Google. I imagine Nokia’s strategy will be similar: they’ll open source some compelling standard apps, which are the portals to get more Nokia apps and services onto the handsets.

There’s a huge difference between Linux and the handsets, though, and I think it’s an important one. Linux’s license (the GPL) prevents people who ship Linux from including proprietary extensions. If you ship a modification to Linux, you must release the source. This means there are no privileged applications (the way Microsoft’s apps used libraries that third-party apps couldn’t), no proprietary competitive advantages in the kernel, and so the rate of improvement of every Linux distribution is maximized.

On Christmas Day 1914, the Germans and British soldiers on the World War I front stopped shooting each other, exchanged presents, and played football together. Essentially, the Linux kernel developer community is the Christmas Truce for the Unix platform developers–a place where they cooperate rather than compete … because the license dictates that they do it.

Both Google and Nokia, however, have deliberately chosen licenses that don’t encourage that kind of cessation to war. Proprietary competitive hardware and software can be put into any Android or Nokia phone at the appropriate level of the stack. I think this will slow down the success of their platforms and means neither will unlock the true potential of an open mobile platform. I believe true demilitarized openness is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for open mobile platform success.

I’d love to know what you think. Am I off the mark? Have I missed a cunning strategic play? Is this, in fact, open source history being written?

tags: , ,
  • I wouldn’t call the acquisition a knee-jerk reaction, but I would say that Google going Open with Android would have played a part in something like this happening.

    There are many reasons why it is also a good thing; the Symbian codebase is HUGE, and most Symbian developers have well rehearsed workarounds for bugs that exist in the OS. Opening up the codebase will help this, especially with the amount of Symbian developers out there.

    Also, look at the success (if you can call it that) of Sun with Open Solaris. That too was a huge amount of work to open source the company’s core product, along with changing the way the company worked, it also gained a massive amount of skill from across the world from people who are passionate about the product.

    The problem you have, which we always had with Linux when it started being “Enterprise Ready” was that people need to be as certain as they can be that there is someone that is responsible for anything that goes wrong with the software, and that there is a level of guarantee that problems will be fixed. The risk of relying purely on the Open Source community is that the problem may not get fixed, the system that relies on your software does not work, and the company looses out.

    What this means is that some Intellectual Property may need to be used to provide a lever of service that helps with that gurantee. In the case of Linux it could be hardware manufacturer kernel extensions, in the case of the mobile industry it would be the radio chips etc.

    If all IP was open, then there would be no problem, but that is never going to happen.

    When there is money being made, there will always be a closed element to any Open Source/Proprietory partnership, and I think it is something that everyone will have to get used to.

    Symbian/Nokia and Google will get a huge amount of benefit from the going the Open route, and the communities will feel blessed to contribute changes.

    The Eclipse and Apache licences are the “Christmas Truce” in the story of Corporate Open Source, or at least the best we can hope for.

  • Friend

    “Google drives the streets” – really? They do StreetView that way but do not, so far as I know, collect street centerline data. They license that for most countries.

  • Luis Alejandro Masanti

    As Chiniesses says… “May you live in interesting times!”

    We are putting the whole “capitalism” in a new position:

    Apple owns the hard, owns the soft, owns the store. Actually ~5% marketshare of smartphones. Full capitaliism!
    Nokia owns the hard, freed the soft, owns the store. Actually ~60% marketshare of smartphones.
    Google does not own the hard, freed the soft, nothing about the store. Actually 0% marketshare of smartphones.
    Microsoft does not own the hard, owns the soft, nothing about the store. Actually ?% marketshare of smartphones.

    Almost all possible combinations are in place. Which one would prevail?

  • Will Freedom trickle down to the consumer? That’s my question. I’m pleased to see that the developers of applications that run on Symbian might have, for the first time, a clear view into the internals of platform. Will this freedom extend to the users of the mobile handsets built on the new open Symbian?

    If freedom were to trickle down to the consumer would anyone care? Is there a consumer-centric benefit for open source mobile handsets? Or is consumer freedom over the software in a handset just an inherent “good thing”?

  • Jim Stogdill

    Hey Nat, I think your question is a good one. Will handset ecosystems be better served by copyleft licenses? I don’t pretend to know the answer (without ideology as a guide, I find it almost impossible to pick a license based on merit) but I thought I’d throw a quick observation into the mix.

    Linux often seems to me to be one part random community and one part contract-less joint venture. It’s as though a bunch of big companies sort of fell into a JV lubricated by academic and individual participation and just never got around to having their lawyers negotiate the deal.

    A quick scan of the contributor list for the Apache project seems to indicate a similar kind of thing despite the fundamentally different license.

    So, unless their is something unique about how community develops and behaves around an OS maybe the choice of license isn’t as huge as it seems. After all as long as apps are separate from the OS, Linux ships with a pretty effective GPL escape valve.

  • I’m not sure what you mean by ‘slow down the success of their platforms’. This seems odd given that Symbian devices already power 2 in every 3 smartphones ( and yet the latest news on Android handsets puts into question the delivery of a single device during 2008

  • Brad’s question is more important to me, at least in the US. The openness of the software on the phone matters very little to me when compared with the closed nature of the network and the provider.

    Having the source code is merely a curiosity if I can’t use a modified version on the device.

  • Nat,

    A good analysis, the impact of the licensing is critical but I do think you are a little off the mark. Check this out (

    I think Android and now Symbian are all about mobile platforms and getting a stake in monopolising and monetising that future. Google needs it to have some proprietary aspects so it can somehow monetise the advertising. Nokia needs new revenue streams too.

  • @Brad: “Will Freedom trickle down to the consumer?” You nail it. I’ve been wondering just what constitutes the value of an open handset platform and open network. I’ve come up with this as a definition of success:

    I have a choice of handsets, on which I can install (over the network) and remove any programs I choose (including kernel and firmware). The programs have full access to the phone’s capabilities, including its network connection, storage, and services like GPS or touchscreen. Anyone can write these programs, and the source to the core handset functionality is available for me to produce and ship my own customized phone and associated functionality. Nobody (neither developers nor users) is locked out of the handset or the network, and I have an option to use software for which there’s no lock-in (where I can download my data in an industry-standard format and move it to another application or platform).

    Too much? What did I miss? Should I ask for a pony too? :)

  • Ciaran

    Every player is in this market for the $$$, and there’s potentially a lot of $$$ to be made. Sure, the walled gardens that the networks have been limiting you to suck, but they’ve been making a lot of money. Nobody’s going to be going completely open for a while – there’s just too much cash at stake. I’d guess it’s going to take ubiquitous wifi eating into cellphone use to really change how the market works.

    The most useful and useable smartphone (from a consumer’s point of view) is the iPhone, and just how open is that?

  • I can tell you from experiences in the Eclipse community, we have lots of examples of Christmas Truce using the EPL. For example, our C/C++ IDE project has contributions from Wind River, QNX, IBM, Nokia, Intel,plus others or our Web Tools project that has committers from BEA, Oracle, SAP, IBM.

    I don’t think the choice of license has much influence on the end of vendor wars. In fact, there are lots of examples of competing/overlapping GPL projects. What I do think is important is the style of governance that is used by a community or project. Linux, Eclipse, Apache and others have employed a vendor-neutral governance model. This is what gets vendors to cooperate, not the choice of license.

  • fauigerzigerk

    I think you’re way off the mark demanding every little piece of software be GPLed whilst the real lock-in happens at the service/contract level.

    And what I don’t like about your “war” metaphor is that cessation of war is almost always a good thing. However, cessation of competition may sometimes be smart but isn’t generally desirable.

  • Well I am looking forward to more (open) symbian software because i have been using a nokia e61, e61i and now a nokia e51 and would like to see that there is more software for my cell phones. on the other hand nokia has become very powerful and maybe they will start misusing this position to sell stuff at high prices after they killed competition. who knows?

  • Jim Stogdill

    I should have referenced this idea of open source as informal JV before but when I posted my last comment I couldn’t readily find it. Now that I ran back across it and to clear my conscience (!) here it is:

  • it’s a good news for industry or just a bad news for industry I am still trying to understand.